Tucked away in the unassuming village of Mitzpe Hila, located in Western Galilee and situated right beside the Lebanese border, there is a vista that will take your breath away.
To the west is a clear view of the Mediterranean in all its glory; to the east – neighboring Lebanon. And everywhere in between? A pastoral and lush green landscape that you’d be hard pressed to find in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
In many ways, this hidden gem is a metaphor for the often-overlooked Western Galilee itself – there is a treasure trove of sights to appreciate if one just takes a moment to explore the sights, smells, tastes, and cultures that the region is home to, all just a short distance from Haifa and Acre.
But this is all changing. Jewish National Fund (JNF)-USA, in cooperation with Western Galilee Now (WGN), is working to show Israel – and the world – how much the North has to offer.
Located in the ancient port city of Acre, the JNF Western Galilee Tourist Information Center offers wandering tourists, both domestic and foreign, information on the best places to see and visit in the region if one wants to travel off the beaten path.
Each year, 1.5 million visitors visit and tour the Old City, and the hope is that once a few of those visitors step into the tourist center, it will become a gateway to other nearby tourist destinations.
The center is where we met up with Amnon Gofer, a tour guide and member of WGN. Launched in 2011, Western Galilee Now acts as a chamber of commerce and is a consortium of dozens of small businesses that all look out for each other.
“It works like this,” Gofer began with enthusiasm. “A couple visits a winery. The winemaker says, ‘You know, for some great cheese to go with the wine, you can go to this place.’ The couple then goes to that cheese maker, who then recommends a great ‘tzimmer’ [bed-and-breakfast] to stay in. The tzimmer owners will recommend a place for lunch the following day, and so on and so forth. We’re all looking out for each other. We want to change this Israeli mentality of ‘every man for himself,’” he said.
For a rather unassuming group of entrepreneurs, Western Galilee Now has evolved into an elite club. The organization asks each member to contribute $100 a month, and members are carefully vetted to ensure that all businesses can offer topnotch customer service. “We’re a grassroots organization that hopes to drive up tourism in this region, which unfortunately is still relatively unknown,” explained Michal Shiloah, director of Western Galilee Now.
The group is also tasked with promoting awareness and appreciation for the region’s boutique wines, food, cultural diversity, historic traditions and scenic routes. To date, WGN has 42 members representing the ethnic mosaic that is the north, with Arabs, Jews, Christians and Druse all working in concert with each other.
The focus on tourism is not coincidental.
With 30-40% of the population supported by the industry, tourism is the very backbone of the Western Galilee.
For Gofer, who has lived in the small town of Kfar Vradim for decades, the Western Galilee is the tour guide’s back yard. Zipping through the region’s peaks and valleys, twists and turns, and waving to passersby he recognizes, Gofer’s passion for the region is evident and he is optimistic that JNF’s work there is injecting life into a place with so much untapped potential.
Seeing the success of JNF’s Blueprint Negev initiative, which has transformed the Negev and breathed life into Beersheba, the organization is now replicating the formula for the North. Its Go North initiative aims to bring a net gain of 300,000 new residents by 2024 and to economically develop the Galilee to make it a desirable alternative place to live than the country’s congested and overpriced center.
“We want people to move to the North, but we also don’t want to lose people,” said Deborah Zaluda, JNF’s Chicago board president.
An active member of the Go North Task Force, where tourism is a central focus, Zaluda explained how the younger generation of Israelis often move to the Center because of the lack of economic opportunities in the North.
JNF is trying to combat that trend by investing in medical centers and housing funds, and by working with Nefesh B’Nefesh to attract olim (new immigrants) to the North. “What we have experienced in the South with Blueprint Negev is remarkable, and when concrete projects are identified – ones you can sink your teeth into – it all comes together. I think we’ll see that in the Galilee,” Zaluda said.
The tourism industry in the Galilee is already starting to see the effects and is reaping the benefits. A quick stop at Stern Winery is an example of how a bustling attraction can help subsequent generations stay in the North.
Its owner, a towering 6’5’’-tall Johnny Stern, can be an intimidating figure at first glance. However, within moments, the Brazilian native makes one feel right at home as he gives a tour of his winery.
What began as a hobby for him over seven years ago is now a full-fledged profession, with his winery selling 30,000 bottles a year. His success has also enabled him to hire four employees, an example of how tourism can help small companies grow incrementally. The prize-winning winery (Stern Winery won both gold and silver medals at last year’s Finger Lakes International Wine competition) hopes to open another winery with a kosher brand on offer – a move that would result in more employment opportunities for the region.
Because of their modest means, these small, quality businesses rely on word of mouth to draw customers. But that’s also changing thanks to JNF. Together with Stern, they are in talks to help him find ways to export his wines to the United States.
For Tami and Yoram Cohen of Tamar & Gefen Tzimmer, a bed-and-breakfast with breathtaking views of the lush Galilean landscape, JNF has spread the word about their business through its magazine, B’Yachad, which the couple say has helped drum up traffic.
“I have people asking me ‘Where’s Luca?’” Tami said of her adorable and energetic chihuahua-pinscher mix that zips through the hallways and gardens. “They know her from JNF. She’s famous!” Like the Stern Winery, which doesn’t have additives or preservatives in its wines, the Tamar & Gefen Tzimmer believes in doing things the hard way in order to deliver a higher quality product. The tzimmer is a great example of attention to detail done right, with its carpentry all designed by Tamar and handcrafted by her husband, Yoram, who also makes his own wine in the basement, which is served to guests.
But at the end of the day, a trip to the North is also seeing coexistence in action.
One such example of that is the Bouza icecream shop. Its owners, Adam Ziv, a kibbutz member, and Alaa Sawitat, an Arab Muslim, opened the parlor where hearing Arabic, English and Hebrew all at once is as normal and common as seeing someone lick a chocolate ice cream cone.
“For us in the Western Galilee, it’s not coexistence, it’s just our existence,” Shiloah said. ■ This article was written in cooperation with Jewish National Fund (JNF)-USA.